Not long after the 2018 football season ended, John Ford, who had just stepped down from his post as coach of Buford, received a text message. It was from Von Lassiter, coach at Bleckley County in Cochran.
"Do you know anyone in your world of Spanish who also coaches football?" Lassiter's text read.
It was a loaded question, of course. Lassiter knew good and well that Ford, a Spanish teacher who coached football, was looking for work. The two met several years back during an all-star game and immediately hit it off.
Ford went along with it, texting back, "You know I need a job, right?"
For Lassiter, the inquiry was a Hail Mary, to use a football term. Ford was one of the most successful metro-Atlanta area coaches available, having compiled a 61-17 record in six seasons — four at Roswell (2013-16) and two at Buford (2017-18). During that span, he had collected four region titles, reached the Class AAAAAAA title game twice and the AAAAA semifinals and quarterfinals.
Lassiter figured Ford could have just about any head coaching job he wanted. But at Bleckley County, a Spanish teacher had just retired and there was a teaching opening at the school. And Lassiter also had a defensive coordinator position with Ford's name on it. So, Lassiter figured, without pressuring Ford, he'd just throw the offer out there and see what happened.
Ford said he'd speak with his wife. A couple of weeks passed, and Lassiter figured Ford was looking elsewhere. But then Ford reached out to Lassiter and said that if his wife could also land a teaching job at the school, he'd accept the offer. Some strings were pulled on Bleckley County's end, and, just like that, the Royals had an all-star coaching staff.
Lassiter had made a name for himself less than 30 miles down the road from Bleckley County at Houston County, where he coached current Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, and they guided the Bears to 10- and 11-win seasons in 2014-15, including a Region 2-AAAA championship in the second season.
In 2016, Lassiter's dreams came true when he landed the head coach opening a Bleckley County, his alma mater. The class of '97 graduate played center and defensive end for the Royals and had always called Cochran home, even owning the childhood house he grew up in. Since his arrival, he has worked on rebuilding the program by expanding the weight room, implementing a state-of-the-art nutritional program, developing the middle school feeder program and adding other top-tier assistants to the staff, including former head coaches.
The Royals are now seeing the fruits of their labor, finding themselves ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 1992. The No. 7 Royals sit at 6-2, 3-1 in Region 3-AA, with their only loss to No. 3 Dublin, 41-32, in a game they were projected to lose by 23. Notable victories include Class A Public's then-No. 4 Marion County and region rival Washington County, which was ranked No. 9 at the time the two played.
They're off this week before hosting Dodge County (3-5, 2-2) Nov. 1.
Firmly entrenched in second place in Region 3, the Royals are in line to qualify for the state playoffs for the first time since 2014 and host a playoff game for the first time since 2013, which is the last time they won in the postseason. The Royals are in a vastly better situation than before Lassiter arrived, when they went a combined 3-17 in 2015-16.
Obviously, Lassiter isn't ready to light any cigars just yet.
"Even with the success we've had, we've only won (six) games," he said. "We're still taking baby steps."
With pollsters ranking the Royals, they're gaining the state's attention. But they're also in the national spotlight thanks to one of their players, who came through the middle school program, beginning to reach his potential — junior tackle Amarius Mims. At 6-foot-8, 310 pounds, Sims is a consensus 5-star among recruiting services, with Rivals.com ranking him the No. 6 overall player, No. 2 tackle in the country and the No. 2 player in the state. With offers from Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia and LSU among others, he controls his own destiny as far as where he'll play at the next level, and he has a realistic shot at the NFL.
Having premiere college coaches attend Bleckley County's practices and games because of Mims has opened up recruiting opportunities for other Royals as well.
"It helped my teammates when I started getting noticed," Mims said. "We have a receiver (senior Bryce Bailey, who holds 11 offers) getting exposure."
Mims' freshman season was Lassiter and his staff's first with the program, and he's noticed the turnaround.
"We weren't very good before they got here," Mims said. "Before they came, Bleckley ran the Wing-T. Now we're a spread offense and everybody is positive. We're going into games expecting to win, whereas in the past we went in expecting to lose. We're all getting along, and everything is good."
For Lassiter, the key to the season is finishing stronger than they began. He remembers all too well his first season with the Royals in 2017, when they started 6-2 but lost three of their last five — all region contests — to slip into a three-way tie for the final playoff spot, where they lost to Washington County in a region mini-game tiebreaker after beating the Golden Hawks in the regular season.
"It doesn't matter your record," Lassiter said. "Any team can win at any time. That's why we're focusing on one game at a time. We tell our kids that this is not over — this is only the beginning."